NASA's Lucy to launch soon, will explore primordial Trojan asteroids

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11 Oct 2021: NASA's Lucy to launch soon, will explore primordial Trojan asteroids

In a bid to unveil the origin mysteries of our solar system, NASA is launching a mission for exploring the "fossils of planet formation," i.e. the Trojan asteroids in Jupiter's orbit. Spacecraft Lucy, named after a fossilized pre-human ancestor found in 1974, will start a 12-year mission on October 16 to explore seven Trojan asteroids and one Main Belt asteroid between Mars and Jupiter.

Significance: Trojan asteroids to show how the solar system evolved

Trojan asteroids move around the Sun clustered around two Lagrange points, where they can stay in orbit without spending much energy. One cluster leads Jupiter while one trails it, thanks to the equilibrium created by the gravitational pull of the Sun and Jupiter. Over four billion years old, these asteroids probably contain clues to the evolution of the first planets in our solar system.

Origin story: Model on outer planets being formed together to be tested

Lucy will test the Nice model that theorizes the outer planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune—and a fifth body were first formed in a violent process. These bodies were constantly accumulating asteroid-like smaller bodies and gravitationally pushing each other. Interactions between Jupiter and the fifth body would explain how Uranus and Neptune got to their positions in the solar system as the fifth body was ousted.

Clues to life: Lucy may also show how water was transported to Earth

Trojan asteroids will not only show how our solar system evolved but may also give clues to how life originated on Earth. In the beginning, the inner solar system was too hot for water to condense on Earth. So, it is theorized that asteroids, rich in water and other volatile substances, transported water and organic compounds to Earth.

Technology: Lucy equipped with advanced cameras, spectrometers

Lucy will assess the asteroids' surface geology, color, and composition, as well as their interior and bulk properties. It will also look for the asteroids' satellites and rings. An advanced thermal emissions spectrometer will study surface properties whereas a combination of a multi-spectral visible camera and an infrared imaging spectrometer will determine the mineral make-up. A Long Range Reconnaissance Imager will get surface images.

Launch coverage: NASA to stream Lucy launch on its website

A Discovery mission led by researcher Harold "Hal" Levison, Lucy will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. NASA will stream the launch on its website from 5:00am ET (2:30pm IST) on Saturday. Other programs like a rollout show and science and engineering briefings will be held on Thursday.

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